Needs improvement

​​Report finds Houston has room to grow as an attractive city for STEM professionals​​

Houston isn't very attractive of an ecosystem for STEM professionals, according to a new report. Getty Images

Houston has been heralded as a great place to find a job in many instances, so it may come as some surprise that when it comes to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the Bayou City isn't primed for professionals.

The city ranked No. 33 out of the 100 largest metros in the United States in a study conducted by WalletHub. The 17 metrics corresponded to professional opportunities, STEM friendliness, or quality of life. Within those categories, Houston ranked No. 47, No. 20, and No. 54, respectively.

Some of the areas where the Houston area stood out is wage, engineering educational opportunities, and projected demand for STEM jobs in 2020. Houston had the highest annual median wage for STEM workers, which was adjusted for cost of living.

While Houston seems to be predicted to need STEM professionals, the city currently has among the worst STEM employment growth and among the highest unemployment rate for STEM professionals with a Bachelor's degree or higher.

Austin, which ranked at No. 4, was the only Texas city to rank higher than Houston, and Dallas followed close behind Houston at No. 38. Dallas actually performed similar to Houston across the categories, while Austin's scores reflected that the city provided the 8th best STEM professional opportunities in the country.

Rounding out the top five on the list was Seattle at No. 1, Boston at No. 2, Pittsburgh at No. 3, and San Francisco at No.5.

In November, Accenture's Brian Richards wrote a guest column for InnovationMap on how Houston could advance as a premier city for tech and innovation. He proffered that STEM talent is a key component the city needs — both coming into the ecosystem as well as remaining here.

"Houston already has tremendous amounts of STEM talent but doesn't produce enough talent or retain enough of the locally-grown talent," he writes. "To jumpstart, we are going to have to import it initially."

Apparently, this isn't an issue unique to Houston. According to Martin Storksdieck, director for the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning in Oregon, while the U.S. has been successfully attracting outsiders to STEM higher education roles, there's a growing need for specific STEM jobs like nurses and computer scientists.

"The US is neither creating, attracting nor retaining middle-skilled STEM professionals in any competitive fashion," Storksdieck says in the report. "[Meanwhile], about half of academic STEM graduate students in the US are foreign born."

Houston-based Moleculin has three different oncology technologies currently in trials. Getty Images

Immunotherapy and personalized medicine get all the headlines lately, but in the fight against cancer, a natural compound created by bees could beat them in winning one battle.

In 2007, chairman and CEO Walter Klemp founded Moleculin Biotech Inc. as a private company. The former CPA had found success in life sciences with a company that sold devices for the treatment of acne. That introduction into the field of medical technology pushed him toward more profound issues than spotty skin.

"Coincidentally, the inventor of that technology had a brother who was a neuro-oncologist at MD Anderson," Klemp recalls.

The since-deceased Dr. Charles Conrad slowly lured Klemp into what he calls the "cancer ecosphere" of MD Anderson. In 2016, the company went public. And it looks like sooner rather than later, it could make major inroads against some of the toughest cancers to beat.

Klemp observed that while Houston has the world's largest medical center, "the tragic irony" is that other cities have far more biotech money ready to be invested.

"The Third Coast is really starved for capital," he says. "What drew me into this was I was one of the few entrepreneurs that lived here that knew the ropes in terms of tapping into East and West Coast capital structures and could make that connection for them."

The company has three core technologies currently being tested with some success, but the most promising is called WP1066, named for researcher Waldemar Priebe, "a rock star" in his native Poland, according to Klemp, who works at MD Anderson. Though Priebe came to the U.S. in the 1980s, he is still an adjunct professor at the University of Warsaw and conducts some of his trials in Poland because it's easier to get grant money there.

WP1066 uses propolis, a compound of beeswax, sap and saliva that bees produce to seal small areas of their hives, as a base. The molecular compound that Priebe discovered affects STAT3 (signal transducer and activator of transcription), a transcription factor that encourages tumor development. In short, the active compound in WP1066 both downregulates the STAT3, a long-time Holy Grail in the cancer research world, and directly attacking the tumor, but also quieting T Cells, which allows the body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. Essentially, it works both as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

WP1066 is demonstrating drug-like properties in trials at MD Anderson on glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that recently took the life of the hospital's former president, John Mendelsohn, as well as John McCain and Beau Biden. It is also being tested against pancreatic cancer, one of the most virulent killers cancer doctors combat.

Priebe also created Annamycin, named for his oldest daughter, a first-line chemotherapy drug that fights Acute Myeloid Leukemia without the cardiotoxicity that can damage patients' hearts even as they beat their cancer.

WP1122 uses yet another mechanism to fight cancer.

"Most people don't know that morphine is essentially a modified version of heroin," Klemp explains.

The difference between the poppy-based drugs? Heroin can cross the blood-brain barrier. It's described as the dicetyl ester of morphine. WP1122 is the dicetyl ester of 2DG (2-Deoxyglucose), a glycolysis inhibitor, which works by overfilling tumor cells with fake glucose so that they can't consume the real glucose that makes them grow.

"The theory is, we could feed you so full of junk food that eventually you'd starve to death," Klemp elucidates. It can cross the blood-brain barrier and is metabolized slowly, meaning that it can be made into a drug in a way that 2DG cannot.

What's impressive about Moleculin is its diversity of drugs. Most companies have one drug that gets all or most of the attention. Moleculin has strong hopes for all three currently in trials.

"It's essentially multiple shots on the goal," says executive vice president and CFO Jonathan Foster.

Moleculin has 13 total employees, five of whom are based in Houston. An office in the Memorial Park area serves as a landing pad for employees and collaborators from around the world to get their work done when in Space City. The virtual office set-up works for the company because experts can stay in their home cities to get their work done. And that work is on its way to saving scores of lives.